What is meant by an “improper relationship” with a student?

It is no longer unusual for school employees to be charged with improper student relationships. Nor is it unusual for today’s teacher to send a student to the office, only to have that student turn the situation around by telling administrators that it was the teacher who was improper. The student might say that the teacher touched him/her or said something racial or something just as inflammatory. In many cases, the employee has done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, this does not stop the misery the employee experiences. In many districts, the employee is automatically placed on administrative leave pending investigation, but that is just the beginning of the problem. In really serious cases, we are seeing more and more public school employees charged with having sexual relations with students. These charges can result not only in the loss of a job, but also in the loss of freedom as the employee is charged with criminal action and possibly sent to jail for up to 20 years. Most associations provide some money for defense against charges made by students or parents. To protect its members from false charges, UEA provides up to $15,000 in legal protection for criminally-related charges. “Even in small cases, damage can be caused to a the teacher’s good name,” said Cheryl Rauscher, a member of the UEA legal team. “People who have known the teacher for years begin to doubt him or her,” said Rauscher. “The stress of such charges is humiliating not only for the teacher, but also for his/her family.” Coaches, choir directors, band directors, drama teachers, and anyone else who, by the nature of his/her job, must have extra contact with students outside the normal school day must be extra careful because they work too closely and, too many times, alone, one-on-one with children. Male teachers are especially vulnerable. What does the law say about relationships with a student? The Texas Penal Code Section 21.12 provides the definition for “improper relationship with a student.” It is defined as any sexual contact or sexual intercourse between a public or private school employee with a person who is enrolled in the public or private school in which the employee works. Texas Penal Code Section 33.021 addresses on-line solicitation of a student. On-line solicitation specifically includes communicating in a sexually explicit manner with a student or distributing sexually explicit material to a student by email, text message, or other electronic message service for the sexual gratification of any person. TEA also recognizes that because of the rash of news reports alleging improper relationships with students, changes were recently made to the Educators’ Code of Ethics. The changes include provisions which confront head-on inappropriate communications between an educator and a student by electronic means (including social media sites) which often are an early indicator of inappropriate relationships or “grooming.” What is Grooming? What might have once been considered being nice to a student might now be considered grooming. Grooming, as defined by TEA, means that an educator engages in increasingly inappropriate boundary violations in an effort to gain the trust of a student and prepare him/her for a future sexual relationship. For example, giving a student a ride home could be considered grooming. Inviting a student to your home or to a party could be considered grooming. Giving a student a gift could be considered grooming. Treating one student differently from others can be looked upon as grooming. The sex of the student or the teacher does not matter.

The Process

The administration must investigate any and all charges made against an employee by either a student or parent. It does not matter if the charge is right or wrong or fair. Sometimes Child Protective Services and the police even get involved in investigations. Sometimes the charges even make the newspaper or other media. In most cases employees believe that their district will be standing behind them, ready to support them in their hour of need. They are taken aback when they find that the district not only has little power to help, but in almost every case refuses to offer any type of support at all. In many cases, the teacher is helpless to do anything while the investigation is in progress. If you are told that a student or parent is making a charge against you, please do the following:
  • School employees have the right to representation in the context of an investigatory interview when the employee reasonably believes the interview may result in disciplinary action. An employee has to ask for the representation.
  • Get help from your association or an attorney before answering too many questions or placing anything in writing.
  • If the charge is of a criminal nature, or if police are involved, ask that your attorney be present during the questioning.
  • Do not discuss the situation with anyone other than your representative or attorney. Do not discuss the situation in the teachers’ lounge.
  • If a member of the media calls, simply say, “I would like to discuss this with you, but I can’t because it involves personnel or students.”